We were on the back deck one crisp spring morning. She was drawing with sidewalk chalk and I was pacing back and forth while chatting on the phone. Granted, my tech-induced trance was not the best example of how to be fully present, but I don’t think it was hurting anyone. My daughter disagreed. She'd noticed that each time I walked the length of the deck, I'd step on a fallen twig whose little leaves were still clinging to life. This repetitive “violence” offended my nearly four-year-old, who (to my delight) still talks to plants and feels a particular affection for the ones in our yard.
I sure got a scolding, which would have been cute except she looked genuinely upset. Oh dear, I thought, flashing through a montage of all the tearful accusations she’s lodged against the likes of doors and table corners who've “hurt” her. In my attempt to raise an empathetic child, have I trained her to scan for trauma where there is none?
Baby Boomer rebellion against the “we don’t talk about that” attitude of their war-shocked parents shaped my generation with both pros and cons. We got more hugs, more compliments, more I-love-you’s, which is all great. Mister Rogers told us our feelings were important and we knew he was right. But there's a difference between dealing with our feelings and indulging them. Teaching that difference to a socially-immature only child is turning out to be quite the challenge for this Gen X/Millennial hybrid.
Naturally I never want her to feel steamrolled or shamed for her tenderness, but there is also something to be said for preparing a child for the world they will actually enter, a world where not everyone rushes up to us when we’re upset and has the time to talk it out for as long as it takes. Even as a young child, it is a mark of privilege that she has several adults who are constantly available to put her sadness at the center of their world.
I’m okay with serial pep talks for now because I want to help her set a firm foundation on which she can hopefully build a mindful emotional life. I also need to empower her, as best I can, to release her attachments to worry, victimhood, and blame. So along with teaching her about fairness, I have to teach her about unfairness – specifically, that it happens and life goes on. I can’t just model generosity and kindness. I have to show her what it looks like to forgive someone who, for whatever reason, won’t show those things.
So, I ask myself, what should such forgiveness look like? Is it sanctimonious? Self-congratulatory? Does it hook me up with free drink tickets at the Martyr Bar? Nah. I really don’t want to be that person who takes every opportunity to whimper. As it turns out, for me, the key to releasing my emotional entitlement to constant comfort, safety, and validation is – drumroll – having a fricking sense of humor.
From the Latin humere (meaning “moisture”), our concept of humor began as a 16th century notion that levels of wetness in the body determined the quality of a person’s mood. While our scientific take has evolved, the metaphor remains apt: without the humidity of humility – the ability to make and take a joke – we become psychologically brittle and tend to break rather than bend when life’s winds blow.
Which they will.
And sometimes it will be real trauma, which necessitates a safe space to process real grief. But sometimes? Sometimes we just have to attune ourselves to a bigger perspective and practice the art of letting go.
So now I mix it up. I do check in with my little one when she’s upset or processing a boo-boo, but sometimes I channel my gruff Irish grandmother and give her a good-natured tease, which almost always tickles out a smile. It’s not that I want my kid to have a thick skin, it’s that I want her to have a strong spine. I want her to know she has a say over what she dwells on, and that life is broad enough to hold differing opinions. We can hear people out and not feel obliged to win them over.
I know it’s hard in our "call-out" world to forfeit the moral leverage of being the underdog, but addiction to that role leads only to a lifetime spent being triggered and trolled. Especially as a white, middle class American, there really is no excuse for any kid of mine not to do the inner work of developing resiliency.
May a healthy sense of humor free her from having to fit into the unjust model of power she’ll inherit from society, which, in its self-seriousness, produces bullies and victims. May the ability to enjoy a dig at her own expense keep that proud heart soft. May she have faith that, as my Irish grandmother might have said, a good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.